Ideas ditched in the Valley of Death

I’d like to make an early statement of intent on the purpose of this post, the title of which was initially something like:

Brunel, atmospheric caper, Composites, Valley of death ,Tallow, Tribology, Nuclear crisis and in the end convention wins the day !

… but I decided not to.

The underlying issue I do aim to deal with is that of Energy sources, since the Japanese disaster has now caused us all to again rethink, what type do we, or can we rely on to deliver efficiency and that can also leave a lower carbon footprint without having us all screaming Armageddon everytime something goes wrong with it.

Brunel’s atmospheric caper

Those that sit around me Monday – Friday, 9 a.m – 5 p.m who still own a Texas Instrument T1-53 calculator, know of Brunel’s failure at re-inventing the Railway with his Atmospheric version which eventually failed because rats like animal fat or Tallow as it is called, which was required to keep the leather (Yes, leather was used) on the pipes (train tracks) supple. It lasted about a year because the vermin responsible for the black plague chewed through it.

I first heard of this from the man in the picture to your right, who spoke at a relaunch event for sogeclair aerospace (Formerly Clairis Technologies) whom I work for.

He is from the National Composite Center (NCC) here in bristol though unfortunately I do not remember his name or position (Please comment If you do)


He commented that if Brunel had designed his atmospheric railway around now, when the National Composite Center is just opening, his rat problem would have been solved, not by pesticides or a really good pest control company but by the wide array of composite materials now available or which are in development. Composites are now of such importance to engineers, not only in the Aerospace Industry where they are increasingly looked to, to solve several design dilemmas (Airbus A350 XWB is made of 53% composite materials).

Our Guy also used the phrase ‘Valley of death’ to describe the eventually forgotten position most ideas end up being in, whilst attempting to make the leap from concept to actual working product, from blue sky research to money making realities.


Valley of Death

Many end up here simply because, the application for their ideas, however brilliant, cannot be found. In the case of Brunel, it had to compete with convention, which it failed at in terms of cost. People were delighted to, for the first time, go on a train journey without being covered in soot from the traditional locomotive train engine. Cost wise, the atmospheric train simply did not match up, atmospheric traction cost 3s (shillings) 1d (pence – Latin, denarius) per mile, compared to 1s 4d for conventional steam Engines.


This is our final stop on the joyride through terms and names that seem unrelated to the aim I stated in the first sentence. Brunel failed because he couldn’t compete with his rival, convention. Also, his timing was off, he was about a century too early ! though this should not encourage anyone to now pick up the idea as we now have Magnetically Levitated Trains (MagLev).

Many Alternatives are aiming to topple fossil fuels, the convention, they have to match the cost and fast, which so far they haven’t done.


I will not say that there is still a big question mark on global warming in a bid to be at my most controversial, many have done this and I do not wish to surpass them or reiterate their opinions or facts depending on whether you’re a member of Greenpeace or Jeremy clarkson’s fan club, but it is too soon and I am yet to see concrete evidence presented for the case for global warming. However big you consider the question mark to be, there is one.

Who knows, this Japanese Nuclear disaster, putting a a BIG QUESTION MARK ON NUCLEAR ENERGY as a viable rival to convention might just be the right timing for other sources to step up or follow suit.

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor riches to the intelligent, nor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

All I can do is sit back and watch intently how this tussle for dominance plays out, maybe in the end, convention will again win.